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Shackled by the Food Chain


Cadbury gets into trouble in one part of the globe. Dry mouths protest in another. The second largest population in the world is in the past few weeks being emotionally blackmailed with hunger fasts while it dreams, quite anachronistically, of an Arab-style revolution. Such hunger fasts are part of the manner in which food culture is perceived and used ? in colonisation, gender bias, racism and sexuality. It gives us a peek into how society functions from the perspectives of different recent events.

“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread” – Mahatma Gandhi

It is ironical, then, that Gandhi often chose the path of culinary abstinence. Religious fasts test the ability of the believer to ‘feel the pain’, not of the immediate surroundings but based on some scriptural injunction. This is about devotion and not awareness. Gandhi, who was the pioneer in religious politicisation, seemed to make a mockery of this denial. By not eating, was he suggesting that the God/bread did not exist?

Those who are blindly following the trail know that after their demands are met they will be pampered, have meetings in five-star hotels and be served by those for whom the bread is a precious commodity they have to struggle to get everyday.

It is also interesting that, while the Biblical reference of ‘breaking bread’ represents the body of Christ, there is an element of elite etiquette when you must properly break French bread and not under any circumstances slice it or cut it.

As Julia Child said, “In France, cooking is a serious art form and a national sport.” This reveals a certain leisureliness. However, in the Nora Ephron film ‘Julie and Julia’, based on the real life story of Julie Powell’s discovery of Julia Child through her own search, the latter joins Le Cordon Bleu to learn cooking when she is 32 to cope with the American wives’ diaspora. It becomes a metaphor for inclusiveness as well as exclusivity ? a society within a society. Art is comfort, and given that this was at the peak of the Joseph McCarthy era that drones in the background it makes a sharp comment about how artists were rounded up. Julia’s outing was a silent and nurturing protest, an invocation of the 1st Amendment, so to speak. Rather tellingly, she was shown to be enjoying sex immensely, sometimes with residue of flour still in her hands. What a potent image when placed against the barrenness around. As Diogenes said, “If only it was as easy to banish hunger by rubbing the belly as it is to masturbate.”

* * *

“Sacred cows make the best hamburger” – Mark Twain

The politicisation of food has many dimensions. We must leave alone the recent study about how the choice of a thin crust pizza would qualify you as a liberal and a heavier meal would make you a conservative, for liberalism and conservatism are not flash-in-the-pan ideologies and their dynamics and dynamism rest on specific situations. Isn’t there cultural conditioning and health-related factors? And since both need dough ? which is slang for money ? one would think that economics is the great leveller.

Therefore, when Cadbury used the line, “Move over Naomi ? there is a new diva in town” in an ad campaign for its new chocolate Bliss, the model had vociferously objected: “I am shocked. It’s upsetting to be described as chocolate, not just for me, but for all black women and black people. I do not find any humour in this. It is insulting and hurtful.”

It is, to the blacks who are derided for it. But, what does it mean for a diva who has been booked for assault cases against her staff? Cadbury has apologised. We need to ask some questions about racial stereotypes with food imagery: Is the dumb blonde not likened to candyfloss? What about beefy men and meaty women? What about Shylock as the avaricious Jew? The bean-fart Mexican? Is not a peaches and cream complexion flattering only because it applies to white people? Then, would not the fad for baking in the sun to get a tan not be a backhanded insult?

Naomi has appeared with a milk moustache for the series of ‘Got milk?’ campaign, even though milky is associated with Caucasian skin. Many people are desirable because their colour is different. Does anyone think of it as a racial slur?

One might contend that the personal need not be the political, for we often nurse exotic dreams and realise them. Socially, such messages might need a level of sensitivity because the straitjacket is always in a hurry to fit in whole communities.

* * *

“Civilized life has altogether grown too tame, and, if it is to be stable, it must provide a harmless outlets for the impulses which our remote ancestors satisfied in hunting” – Bertrand Russell

Mark Zuckerberg decided he needed to go for the kill and only eat what he himself killed. He made it appear like a Dale Carnegie sell-improvement programme: “This year, my personal challenge is around being thankful for the food I have to eat. I think many people forget that a living being has to die for you to eat meat, so my goal revolves around not letting myself forget that and being thankful for what I have.” Like many people, he could have turned vegetarian or chosen to eat less meat. His saying that a pig roast meal at his house made him think “that the pig used to be alive” is akin to saying that before social networking sites people met in person.

His moral concern is only one part it. The other is about the primordial instinct to conquer beyond the boardroom, to flex muscle and draw blood. These are tactile. Like the hunters of old who often took pictures with their prey, Zuckerberg posted photographs of the chicken he had killed and the dishes he made from it. It was his male moment.

The absence of machismo was one of the reasons for an outrage when McDonald’s had released posters that showed Asterix and his group of warriors enter one of their outlets to feast on burgers and fries. It was part of their “Come as you are” campaign. For all the McIdea of breaking through barriers, they had not contended for a comic-book character’s history. The hero lives in a Gaulish village and reports mentioned that it had survived Caesar’s legions for half a century.

The ad was seen as a softening of a brave hero who ate wild boar now sitting with pressed meat hidden between round buns with veggies poking out and ketchup drooling. It is, much as we hate to admit it, the manner in which the US seems to be larger than life. Fries are in fact a French invention, but who cares?

In a trice, there was capitulation, or so thought Gallic pride that detests the American concept of homogeneity.

* * *

“Appetite comes with eating; the more one has, the more one would have” – French Proverb

The extension of a flexible world would mean no boundaries. Most societies today revel in fusion food. But think about a battle of the spuds.

When some New York restaurants were getting all snooty, the boss of Burger King had got snottier about English cuisine, which is like fries sticking out their tongue at jacket potatoes. It isn’t merely about the hidden dragons in crouching potatoes and most certainly not relegated to American versus English. Experiments with food do evoke a Pavlovian response in more than the salivating manner.

When Bernardo Hees, the CEO of Burger King, said about his student days in Warwick, “The food is terrible and the women are not very attractive”, it was seen as an insult to British gastronomy and English women. His company issued an apology.

The fact is that Burger King outlets are all over Britain as in most of the world. There are women behind the counters taking orders. The inadvertent connection between food and women has a deeper connotation. Even though the connotation of comfort food and comfort women are totally different concepts, they find a convergence in the pleasure principle. Years ago, when easy-to-make food packets were being marketed, it was women who felt less empowered; it took away the sensuality and drama associated with kneading the dough, baking it, poking the fork through the crust to check on the sponginess or softness of the insides, and then whipping up the cream. It wasn’t a job being done but an immaculate conception. Or self love.

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based author-columnist. She can be reached at

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